Some Nuclear Ground Rules for Kim Jong Un
Washington and Pyongyang need to set new boundaries, even if they keep the deal under the table.
The time for denial is over. North Korea has — or will very shortly have — the capability to launch a nuclear weapon against the United States. In the coming decades, historians can assign blame. For now, it is the task of policymakers to ensure that historians will still be around in the future to dissect this failure.
While denuclearization should remain the international community’s formal goal, it is no longer a practical policy. A freeze on missile and nuclear testing, which I advocated only seven months ago, has lost value as North Korea’s capabilities have rapidly advanced. Analysts can happily theorize about a disarming preventative strike, but the risks — to both the United States and its allies — are so serious that no sane politician would authorize one. Instead, Washington should try to establish some basic rules of the road with a newly nuclear Pyongyang.
The first priority must be to create a plausible offramp to the current standoff. Contrary to media reporting, North Korea has not backed off its threat to “bracket” Guam with missiles, and could enact its plan during U.S.-South Korea military exercises that begin next week. Before then, North Korea could agree not to conduct missile tests that overfly South Korea or Japan, in return for the United States ending strategic bomber training flights within an agreed distance of North Korean airspace.
The restriction on North Korea would preclude it from firing ballistic missiles anywhere near Guam. Given that Kim Jong Un would want to demonstrate to military and party elites, rather than the population at large, that he had won a concession in return, face-saving might not even require the agreement to be made public. Indeed, an unacknowledged agreement (officially shared only with the Japanese, South Korean, Chinese, and Russian governments) might be more palatable to all concerned.
More generally, an agreement over missile testing and bomber flights would exemplify how mutually agreed rules could reduce the likelihood of U.S.-North Korea crises in the future. Without an agreement regulating military activities, Pyongyang could interpret U.S. bomber training flights near its borders, especially at a time of heightened tensions, as the opening salvo of a sneak attack to destroy its nuclear forces or “decapitate” its leadership (especially given the inconsistent U.S. position on whether or not it seeks regime change). Meanwhile, North Korean missile tests over Japan or South Korea would be extremely provocative, regardless of the target, and create pressure within the “hub-and-spoke” alliance for a forceful response. Foreclosing these escalation pathways is in the interests of Washington, its allies, and Pyongyang.
Another immediate initiative should be a hotline between Washington and Pyongyang. Given how difficult it is to foresee exactly how and why future crises could arise, risk-reduction measures that are useful in a wide range of circumstances would be particularly valuable. A reliable communication channel would fit this bill.
In a narrow sense, the benefits of risk reduction would far outweigh any costs, which are likely to be modest. For example, keeping bomber training flights away from North Korea’s borders would not prevent the United States from conducting joint exercises with its allies, let alone from living up to its commitments to defend them. Moreover, the benefits extend beyond the obvious one of reducing the chance of nuclear war.
In particular, while allies fear that the United States might abandon them during a crisis, they also worry about the possibility of its dragging them into an unnecessary war of Washington’s own making. Especially at a time when the United States has given allies good reasons to question the prudence of its leadership, sensible risk reduction steps could help Washington go some way to reestablishing itself as a steady and trusted hand at the tiller of regional security.
In a broader sense, however, making concessions — albeit reciprocal ones — in the face of North Korean threats carries the obvious risk of encouraging more threats. Yet, amid a dangerous standoff that could plausibly escalate to a nuclear war, this concern should not stop the United States from proposing an agreement that would be a net plus for the security of itself and its allies. Indeed, if a similar fear had deterred President John F. Kennedy, in October 1962, from offering to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey in return for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, the only saving grace for his legacy would have been the lack of any future historians to criticize him.
North Korea’s acquisition of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles is genuinely scary, and adjusting to it will be difficult for the United States and its allies. But the faster we make that adjustment, the safer we will be. Ultimately, the lives of millions of Americans — and Japanese and South Koreans and innocent North Koreans — depend on recognizing that, like elections, nuclear proliferation has consequences.
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